by Patrick Nygren
Like many who start PhD programs and go on to postdoc positions, I was focused on the academic world, and the big question for me was: teaching or research? As my projects in the lab progressed, I found myself much more interested in communicating with others about the background and implications of my research rather than doing the research itself. I applied for the STEP program, reasoning that if I enjoyed conveying information, teaching might be a good fit. But teaching is so much more than conveying information. In the first STEP meetings we learned about Bloom’s taxonomy of cognition and how to help facilitate deep engagement—rather than just receiving information—with concepts. When my group and I started developing and planning our course, I quickly found that creating curriculum involves thinking strategically about how to be clear and concise, yet leave space for deep insights and student engagement.
My career interests shifted over time, and my interest in academic research waxed and waned, as well. I was proactive about seeking opportunities to explore different tracks, and the STEP program was part of this journey. After a long period of introspection, I decided I was most interested in pursuing a career in scientific or medical communication. I began to cold-email people I was vaguely connected to who worked in medical writing, science journalism, manuscript editing/preparation, medical science liaisons, and many other types of positions. The process of setting up these informational interviews was way out of my comfort zone, and thankfully the first meetings I had were with gracious and kind people who not only gave me advice about careers, but also helped me understand how to effectively network and engage with professionals without feeling like a sleazeball.
During these informational interviews, and the job search in general, I was surprised by the ways STEP had prepared me for career exploration. Part of me had assumed that since I wasn’t looking for jobs in formal science education, my STEP fellowship would be secondary experience. One medical writer I met took a look at my resume and instantly focused on the STEP experience, stopping in the middle of a sentence and saying “Wait. You have experience developing an educational curriculum?” To him, this was more relevant and interesting than any of the manuscripts or grants I had worked on, any of the presentations I’d given, the techniques and disciplines I was familiar with. He began to describe why this type of project was important experience for any career that involved medical communication. The ability to adapt material for different audiences, to be efficient yet engaging, to build a framework on a larger scale than just a simple lecture or poster presentation—all of these were skills that STEP helped me develop and demonstrate.
I began to emphasize these abilities and experiences on my resume and in informational interviews, as well as job interviews. This change shifted how my experience was perceived, leading to multiple interviews, and eventually, job offers. Not every offer was what I was looking for, and not every position was a good fit for my interests, but by and large, the skills I had gained in STEP helped me to convey that I was a creative and logical communicator, with experience creating materials from scratch. In my current position as an analyst helping pharmaceutical companies develop research strategies, I use organizational, teamwork, and communication skills that STEP helped me to develop. Even though STEP and the pharma/biotech industry seem worlds apart, the pieces fit together, both during my job search and during my day-to-day.